COLUMBIA — Ron Titus, owner of three Columbia-area vaping shops, believes his adult customers should not face restrictions on their rights to use electronic alternatives to traditional cigarettes.
"I’m not a libertarian by any means, but I support the libertarian ideal that you do what you want,” Titus said. "I’m not hurting anybody. ... Kids go and drink a bunch of Monster Energy drinks and get hopped up on caffeine. How is that different from vaping?"
But as their use grows, more rules on e-cigarettes could be coming to South Carolina.
The House last week passed a bill that would prevent local governments from adding any restrictions to the sale of tobacco or nicotine products, while a proposal to keep minors out of shops selling e-cigarettes was sent to the Senate earlier this month.
Another bill bans tobacco and e-cigarettes in schools, including at sporting events.
A typical e-cigarette, or “vape,” doesn’t have any tobacco at all, but along with the sweet or fruity pod flavor, it does contain the addictive nicotine and other chemicals.
E-cigarette usage has increased dramatically among teens over the past seven years, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control,/ At 13 percent, it surpassed regular tobacco product usage for the first time in 2017.
For people who testified at a recent hearing in opposition to a bill keeping local governments from regulating e-cigarettes, concern for South Carolina’s youth was a driving force.
"It’s my hope that the conversation will be, ‘How do we protect kids?’” said Ian Hamilton with the South Carolina Tobacco Free Collaborative. “How do we help people quit? How do we protect kids from starting in the first place? That’s where I hope the conversation goes."
The dangers of e-cigarettes aren’t lost on users, many of whom turn to e-cigarettes as a means to quit smoking altogether.
Columbia resident Candice Campbell said that after having a son, she decided to ditch regular cigarettes for a popular brand of e-cigarettes, Juul, that has become a common word to describe alternative smoking products.
“I don’t juul a lot, but it does calm my nerves down when I think I want a cigarette,” said Campbell, 19. “But as soon as I started juuling I never picked up another cigarette in the past year.”
A few cities, including Columbia, have at least considered including the electronic cigarette in its workplace and restaurant smoking ban.
Some lawmakers want to avoid having different restrictions in different cities.
“It’s not fair that there’s one retailer doing one thing and another across the street that’s doing another thing,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, a Columbia Democrat who co-sponsored the bipartisan bill with Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill.
Rutherford said the bill is pre-emptive since he didn't know of any cities that are close to passing regulations.
Daniel Bolin, a Columbia resident who has vaped for three years, said local and state governments need to take their time in regulating e-cigarettes.
“Lots of fear, not much reasoning to back it, and people just need to take a step back, breathe,” Bolin said. Too much regulation, he said, might make things worse, not better.
For S.C. legislators, trying to make laws that protect children is not new territory. The state passed a law in 2013 to add e-cigarettes to laws banning tobacco sales to anyone under 18.
State Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Columbia, sponsored bills that restricts anyone under 18 from entering a vape shop in the state and bans tobacco and e-cigarettes in schools since many districts lack policies.
“I didn’t know what (a) Juul was a year ago,” Bernstein said, “and now it’s a verb.”
Bernstein said she liked the idea of raising the legal age to buy all tobacco products to 21, though that would likely face a stiff challenge in the Statehouse.
“Vaping has become really at epidemic levels for preteens and teenagers and a lot of those products are being marketed to teenagers as being a safer alternative,” Bernstein said. “I think some of the kids that are trying it don’t see it as being as bad as smoking a cigarette.”
Titus said many of his customers at one of his stores come from Fort Jackson, the Army's largest training base, where many recruits are between 18 and 21.
"They’re old enough to serve and fight and vote, so I never supported 21 and over,” he said.
"I’m protecting my right to vape, I’m protecting my customers right to vape,” he added. “There’s thousands and thousands of people that are not big tobacco. They’re small, mom-and-pop organizations with about two to 30 employees, and feel like they have no voice.”